PSEG planning use of controversial chemical in Southold project

PSEG plans to install wooden utility poles treated with a controversial chemical next month. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)
PSEG plans to install wooden utility poles treated with a controversial chemical next month. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)

Despite ongoing related controversy on the South Fork, PSEG Long Island said this week that it would treat utility poles scheduled for installation in Southold with the chemical pentachlorophenol, or “penta,” which is considered toxic and a public health risk. 

Earlier this month, PSEG announced it had selected Southold as one of the first towns to receive power system upgrades as part of its $729 million effort to repair the region’s electric grid and protect it from extreme weather. The project, which involves installing new and more durable utility poles and replacing switching equipment, is scheduled to begin April 6.

But now, local environmentalists and politicians are saying the Southold project should be put on hold until safer, more eco-friendly alternatives to penta, which has been linked to cancer and groundwater contamination, can be explored.

“With the groundwater issues that we have here on the North Fork there are extreme risks involved with poles being installed with these chemicals,” said Bill Toedter, president of the North Fork Environmental Council. “[The project] should be stopped until further study and alternatives can be used.”

Bob DeLuca, president of Southold environmental organization Group for the East End, said he is “deeply concerned” about the chemical and its effects on groundwater.

“We feel, given the sensitivity of our groundwater supply and declining surface water quality, additional efforts should be made to curtail the use of this product and find safer alternatives,” he said.

Although use of penta is banned or severely restricted in 33 countries, the federal Environment Protection Agency declared in February 1997 that its benefits outweigh its risks, and has since allowed the chemical to be used to treat utility poles.

Senator Charles Schumer has called for an EPA investigation and immediate suspension of further use of penta until a federal study is complete. Earlier this month the senator said there are currently more than 90,000 chemically treated poles installed across Long Island.

“There’s no debate that penta is a highly toxic chemical that should be nowhere near playgrounds or our drinking water,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement earlier this month.

In September, Assemblymen Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and state Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) introduced a bill in Albany that would ban further use of the product on utility poles. The measure would also require warning labels be placed on existing penta-treated poles.

As the April 6 start date for the Southold project approaches, Supervisor Scott Russell agreed the plans should be shelved for now.

“I would urge a delay until the issues surrounding the use of penta are more fully investigated,” he said.

Mr. Russell said the board is currently reviewing an environmental impact statement released by EPA regarding the chemical and has been in talks with East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, who has been waging a war on the chemical on the South Fork since PSEG installed more than 200 penta-treated poles there last year.

Mr, Cantwell said a recent study found concentrations of the chemical that exceed state standards in the soil near the new utility poles. The study also found compounds associated with penta in the groundwater, he aid.

“We have called upon the EPA, the DEC, the Suffolk County health department, the Suffolk County Water Authority and PSEG because we are quite concerned with the level of contamination that we have documented,” Mr. Cantwell said. “Homes are within 20 feet of these new utility poles and we think it is a potential health hazard.”

The Southold project is one of two major infrastructure upgrades about to take place on Long Island. PSEG plans to begin a similar project in Huntington the same day.

Despite calls to reevaluate its use of penta, PSEG stands by the use the of the chemical to treat its poles.

The new poles to be erected in Southold are approximately the same height as existing poles, have a stronger base and will be placed about two to three feet from current pole locations, according to PSEG.

“Penta-treated poles have a long, proven track record for withstanding the elements and continue to be the preferred choice among utilities across the country,” spokeswoman Kristina Pappas said. She said an environmental impact study was not completed since “a project like Southold involving a replacement in kind, rehabilitation, or maintenance of existing facilities or equipment is not subject to environmental review under applicable SEQRA regulations.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is funding the multi-million dollar system upgrade in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which severely damaged PSEG’s transmission and distribution system.

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